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Review: Apple's new iPhone 3G S and iPhone Software 3.0

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iPhone 3G S Hardware

With all this new software sprucing up your existing iPhone or iPhone 3G for free, do you really need to upgrade your hardware too?

If you're a current iPhone user, it'll cost you a minimum of $199 plus an extension of your contract to get the latest model. And if you missed a couple payments in the last year of your iPhone 3G service, as I did when AT&T messed up my bill while I was traveling, you might face a hefty upgrade price as much as $499 for more expensive 32GB model. You'll have to weigh the pros and cons yourself, but below we present the features that might tempt you to upgrade again.

If you're new to the iPhone, you might also be considering the new $99 price set for the existing iPhone 3G. If you think you can't scrape together another hundred bucks, you should at least try. While last year's model sounds like it costs half as much, it's really not nearly as good of a deal. That's because neither phone actually costs the price you actually pay when you get a subsidy.

The cheaper iPhone 3G is really $499 (8GB) with a $400 subsidy rebate invisibly paid for by AT&T as an advance out of the $100 per month bills you'll be paying over the next two years, which is pretty much the same as any other premium smartphone on the market. The new iPhone 3G S is only slightly more, for double or quadruple the storage: $599 (16GB) or $699 (32GB) with the same $400 subsidy rebate from AT&T. Factor in the fact that you may be paying sales tax on the retail price of the phone (as California requires, for example), and the savings in buying an iPhone 3G over the new iPhone 3G S just keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Are you really set on saving 27 cents a day this year by putting up with a slower phone with half the storage? The $99 iPhone 3G isn't really a good deal at all; it's only thrown out there to catch the attention of people who also use check cashing outlets and take out instant loans on their tax return. Don't buy it unless you're pound foolish. The only reason to get an iPhone 3G at this point is if you're an original iPhone user and your friend is upgrading to the new phone and giving you an iPhone 3G as a gift.

iPhone 3G S

S is for Speed

The new iPhone 3G S is a lot more than just more storage. First of all, its fast, really fast. Apple says its up to twice as fast, and that's conservative. Speed in the computing world has always been taken for granted; once you start using a new computer or software upgrade, the new speed it delivers quickly becomes your new baseline of expectation. Once you start using the new iPhone 3G S, you'll wonder how you ever coped with the previous version. It's really that much more usable.

Most of that speed is due to its fast new processor core and graphics architecture, although the latter isn't even yet fully exploited. The new Cortex-A8 ARM core is dramatically faster than the processor used in the two previous iPhones and in both models of the iPod touch. The PowerVR SGX graphics core also delivers a big jump in speed, and a new crop of applications, and in particular games, should help demonstrate its new capabilities.

Starting with the original iPhone, Apple leveraged the latent graphics power built into the off-the-shelf SoC chips that every modern smartphone has, but which few make any real use of, just as the company identified the GPU as a way to differentiate the system on its desktop Mac line well may years ahead of the industry in general. Back in 1999, Apple demonstrated Mac OS X using an advanced graphics compositing architecture that was originally used primarily to add some splashy eye candy effects such as translucency and shadows.

Since then, Mac OS X has adapted its ubiquitous use of OpenGL to enable more and more practical use of the GPU. With the iPhone, Apple similarly put to use the graphics power that every other smartphone maker had reserved for nothing more than running the occasional 3G game applet. The iPhone unleashed that capacity to power a slick, animated user interface that uses graphics effects to make the phone feel faster than it even is, making it more usable, more intuitive, and more fun.

With the much faster new processor, graphical trickery isn't as necessary. Existing iPhone apps now launch and work much faster, particularly more complex apps like games. Safari browses the web rapidly, loading pages a bit quicker but rendering them must faster. The original iPhone was pretty decent, the new iPhone 3.0 boosts performance quite a bit, but the new iPhone 3G S hardware really smokes when opening up web pages. It's the fastest phone on the market. You'll feel like you're browsing from a full sized notebook.

Network Speeds

WiFi speeds feel a bit faster on the new model, but in testing there were no strong numbers to indicate that it gets or can maintain any better signal reception over the previous model. It appears that the much faster processor simply allows it to use the data it gets much more efficiently.

There's also some additional potential for future mobile data network speed advances with the new iPhone 3G S; it supports faster 7.2 Mbps HSPA 3G data networks, if you have have faster service available in your area. It's sometimes hard enough just to find a regular 3G signal in some areas, including parts of San Francisco that AT&T insists are well within its solid 3G coverage. However, the company reports it is busy rolling out new 7.2 service this year, so mobile speeds have nowhere to go but significantly upward. Current 3G service in most of the US is typically 3.6 Mbps.

3G was the key new feature of last year's phone, and it's clever of Apple to brand the new model as iPhone 3G S, as it associates it with the $99 entry level (bait-and-switch?) phone and carries ahead the familiar branding. Such a stark contrast from the company's competitors, who keep churning out forgettable model names and numbers as if that worked well as a strategy against the iPod. Apple is indicating a confidence that its products are well regarded and impressive enough to not require a constant rebranding effort, unlike that other software vendor out there that has to rename its products nearly every cycle to erase the memory of previous failure: Bing!

On page 3 of 4: Same on the outside; New on the inside: Voice Control; New on the inside: Accessibility features; New on the inside: Camera; and New on the inside: Compass.